The Malaysia Transport Ministry’s first report on the probe of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370), released today, adds few relevant details to the little already known about why the flight disappeared, while recommending that industry explore real-time tracking of aircraft.

The report—which includes seven pages of narrative and details on efforts to contact MH370, air traffic control recordings between MH370 and Kuala Lumpur controllers, a seating plan, and the plane’s cargo manifest—shows that controllers and the airline’s operations center spent nearly four hours attempting to contact the missing Boeing 777, seemingly overlooking key clues that suggested they had an emergency on their hands.

The report, dated April 9 but made public today, confirms MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 00:41:43 local time March 8 en route to Beijing.
At 01:19:24, Kuala Lumpur control handed MH370 off to controllers in Ho Chi Minh, and somebody on MH370’s flight deck acknowledged the request. The last confirmed radar return from the Boeing 777 came at 01:21:13, but the flight never checked in with controllers in Ho Chi Minh. Contact with the flight was never re-established.

At 01:38, Vietnamese controllers contacted their counterparts in Kuala Lumpur, asking where MH370 was.

After about a half hour of attempting to locate the flight, Kuala Lumpur controllers at 02:15 contacted the airline’s operations center, which determined that it could “exchange signals with the flight” and that it was in Cambodian airspace. But Cambodian controllers reported having neither any contact with nor information on MH370, and Ho Chi Minh controllers confirmed that MH370’s flight plan did not include Cambodian airspace.

The ops center reported the flight in “normal condition” as late as 02:35. Within the next hour, however, the ops center acknowledged that flight-tracking information “was based on flight projection and not reliable for aircraft positioning,” according to a document released with the report.

Over the next several hours, controllers and the ops center tried to reach MH370, turning at one point to another Malaysia Airlines flight for help contacting the missing aircraft.

After nearly four hours of fruitless efforts to find MH370, officials activated an emergency response effort at 05:30.

The report touches on the seven Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) “handshake” messages sent after routine communications with the flight stopped, including the last one at 0819, but does not provide additional details. It also reviews the analysis of these signals that led investigators to conclude the aircraft’s flight ended in the Southern Indian Ocean, but does not shed new light on the aircraft’s known or suspected flight path, including much-reported altitude changes while the aircraft was still close to Malaysia.

Malaysian Defense Minister and acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who released the report, also confirms that Malaysian military radar picked up an aircraft “making a turn-back, in a westerly direction, across peninsular Malaysia on the morning of 8 March.” No immediate action was taken, however, because “the aircraft was categorized as friendly.” A review of the military radar tapes soon after an emergency was declared helped focus the initial search and rescue effort in the Straits of Malacca, he adds.

The report’s recommendation, from the Malaysian Air Accident Investigation Bureau, calls on the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to “examine the safety benefits of introducing a standard for real-time tracking” of commercial aircraft. ICAO is already working on the issue, and is convening a flight data tracking summit on May 12-13.     

Release of the report came following public outcry after last week’s revelation by Malaysia Director General of Civil Aviation Azharuddin Abdul Rahman that Malaysia had sent an interim report on MH370 to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), but not released it publicly. Two days later, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak revealed on television news channel CNN that the report would be made public, but only after an internal review.

“Last week, the Prime Minister appointed an internal team of experts to review all the information the government of Malaysia possesses regarding MH370, with a view to releasing as much as possible to the general public,” explains Hishammuddin. It is not clear how the publicly released report compares to the one provided to ICAO.

The report distribution protocol followed by Malaysian officials appears inconsistent with established international norms.

ICAO accident investigation protocol, contained in the organization’s Annex 13, calls for completion of a preliminary report “within 30 days” of the accident or incident under investigation. The report should be distributed to the countries linked to the operator, aircraft manufacturer, aircraft designer, and “any state that provided relevant information, significant facilities or experts,” the annex explains. A U.S. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman confirms that the board received a copy of the report before it was made public. 

While the annex does not discuss public distribution of reports, interim reports are rarely kept under wraps, regardless of how much information they may add to what has been publicly confirmed. In 2009, France’s BEA publicly released its first preliminary report on Air France Flight 447 accident on July 2, 31 days after the disaster. In 2000, Taiwan’s Aviation Safety Council took less than a month to issue its first recommendations following the Oct. 31 crash of Singapore Airlines 006 at Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport.